YOU WANT A METHOD TO THE MADNESS? HERE'S A PRIMER ON WHAT TO WATCH—AND HOW TO WATCH IT—DURING THE MOST EXCITING THREE WEEKS IN SPORTS
Unless you've been living in a bubble—as opposed to on the bubble—the last few months, you know about the changes to the format of the men's tournament this year. There's more of it: With the field expanded to 68 teams, there will be four play-in games, which will now be referred to as the first round, on March 15 and 16 in Dayton. (Two games will consist of the four weakest teams playing for a couple of 16th seeds; the other two will pit against one another the last four of the 37 at-large qualifiers, with 11th and 12th seeds on the line.) And you can see more of it: For the first time all games will be broadcast in their entirety on one of four channels, CBS, TBS, TNT and truTV (page 52).
But one feature of the tournament is eternal: Seniors get their last shot at collegiate glory. This year's field is loaded with tandems and trios—even a nonet!—of seniors with unfinished business. Take Ohio State, the field's top seed. Sure, Big Ten freshman of the year Jared Sullinger has grabbed most of the headlines, but the Buckeyes' driving force over the next three weeks will be their three seniors—David Lighty, Jon Diebler and Dallas Lauderdale. Lighty, a fifth-year swingman whom coach Thad Matta calls "the best defender in college basketball," played in the 2007 title game, when the Greg Oden--led team lost to Florida 84--75. Since then OSU's postseasons (NIT, first round, Sweet 16) have been "a roller coaster," says Lighty. "I was spoiled getting to the national championship as a freshman. Hopefully we can end it that way too, only winning it this time."
Back in the fall Purdue seemed doomed to continue its recent run of March vexation. When senior Robbie Hummel reinjured his ACL on Oct. 16, media and fans couldn't get off the Final Four bandwagon fast enough. (Foxsports.com dropped the Boilermakers all the way to No. 25 from No. 2 in its preseason rankings.) But remaining seniors JaJuan Johnson and E'Twaun Moore—and a blossoming supporting cast—answered with a 25--7 season and a No. 3 seed. "We can definitely make the Final Four," says the 6'10" Johnson, the Big Ten player of the year. "We have all the pieces."
And there is Villanova, which has gone so cold it has made history: After a 16--1 start the injury-plagued Wildcats will be the first team since the field expanded to 64 in 1985 to enter on a five-game losing streak. Can seniors Corey Stokes, Corey Fisher and Antonio Pena, who made the Final Four in 2009, recover their early-season mojo? Georgetown will get a boost with the return of senior point guard Chris Wright, who has watched his team lose four straight since he fractured his left hand on Feb. 23. Can he team with fellow seniors Austin Freeman and Julian Vaughn to make their first Sweet 16?
Lighty thinks these seniors have the same motivation, including the nine on St. John's, who have never been to the Big Dance. "It's the last chance to put on the school jersey," he says. "Everyone wants to make the most of that."
For Luke Winn's up-to-the-minute coverage of the NCAAs, go to SI.com/tourneyblog
An NBA talent evaluator tells Seth Davis which five players have the most to prove in March
JIMMER FREDETTE, G, BYU
Everyone likes him, but there's a wide range of opinions. People knock his defense, but his only job on D is to not get into foul trouble, so it's hard to judge. Without [suspended forward Brandon] Davies in there he has more of a load to carry. Fredette has played great, but I want to see him do it against the bigger dogs. If he goes up against Pitt or Florida, can he still get it done?
KYLE SINGLER, F, Duke
I have a lot of questions about him. He hustles and does the smart stuff, but he has not shot the ball well at times. You wonder about that, you wonder about his athleticism. It doesn't get any easier at the next level. There are some guys in the NBA who won't let him be so rough-and-tumble.
BEN HANSBROUGH, G, Notre Dame
I think he gets overlooked, but I've been to four or five of his games when he has been the best player on the court—and that's against some really good teams. If he can keep scoring 20 or more points every game, it has to really help him. He seems to be a guy who wants to play on a big stage, so here's his chance.
KAWHI LEONARD, F, San Diego State
He does a lot of good things, but he has trouble scoring. Sometimes he can make plays for other guys, but there are a lot of tall wing players in the NBA who can do that but are better than him. Still, he has had a heck of a year. If he has a bad tournament, he could slip to the second round, but if he kicks butt, he could be a lottery pick.
TYLER HONEYCUTT, F, UCLA
He looks like an NBA player out there, but he's a little too laid-back for me. I've seen him have games where he didn't shoot it very well. He gets rebounds and can score on putbacks, but he needs to get after it more. I know he's hoping to turn pro. He's an intriguing player, so if he could show that effort in a big game, you might want to take a chance on him.
THEY SAID IT
"YOU ALMOST WONDER IF SOMEONE [ON THE SELECTION COMMITTEE] HAS AN AGENDA, AND THAT AGENDA DOESN'T INCLUDE VIRGINIA TECH."
—Hokies coach Seth Greenberg, after his team went 21--11 (including 9--7 in the ACC) and was among the final cuts from the NCAAs for the third consecutive year
BY THE NUMBERS
Tournament appearances for Notre Dame, the most by any school that has not won a national championship.
Teams, Xavier and Michigan State, that have advanced to the Sweet 16 for three straight years, the longest current streaks.
Career NCAA tournament points scored by Duke forward Kyle Singler, the most by any active player. Former Blue Devil Christian Laettner is the alltime leader, with 407.
Games played in the NCAA tournament between Marquette and Kentucky, the most frequent matchup of any two teams.
Straight years that two former national champs will face off in an opening-weekend game. (UCLA and Michigan State play on Thursday.)
KHRIS HALE/ICON SMI
SENIOR MOMENT Moore (33) and Johnson (25) aren't about to let a kid like Sullinger muscle in on their action.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (FREDETTE)
UNDER PRESSURE The pros will be weighing the performances of (from top) Fredette, Singler, Hansbrough, Leonard and Honeycutt.
DAVID BERGMAN (SINGLER)
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WINSLOW TOWNSON (HANSBROUGH)
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GARRETT W. ELLWOOD (LEONARD)
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RIC TAPIA/ICON SMI (HONEYCUTT)
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